Mata Hari (1931)

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Starring: Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, Karen Morley

“In 1917, war-ridden France
Dealt summarily with
Traitors and spies”

I am far from an expert when it comes to the film Mata Hari. Sure, when reviewing a film, I try to do a little bit of research, but generally when watching a mainstream film, I presume that I am watching a full-length, uncut version. After all, what kind of shocks could a film from 1931 hold for modern audiences? Not too many, but when the film was re-released in 1938/39, some scenes were cut out to satisfy the Hays Code. And unfortunately, these scenes have never been reinstated. So the current DVD version of Mata Hari is cut. But who knows, the complete version may turn up one day?

But here’s a quick overview of the current DVD version: In a field three traitors a tied to stakes. A firing squad shoots the first traitor, then the second. Before shooting the third, two officials walk up to the young gent tied to the stake. One of the officials, Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) asks the young man about a woman. The man, who is clearly scared, refuses to answer. Dubois says, “It’s Mata Hari isn’t it?” There is still no answer. The officials walk away in disgust, and the traitor is shot.

Overhead, a biplane flies over the killing field to a nearby landing field. The plane is Russian and the pilot is Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Navarro) of the Russian Imperial Airforce. He is carrying important documents which have to be passed on to the heads of the Russian Embassy in Paris. Waiting to greet Rosanoff is General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore), a high ranking Russian officer stationed in Paris. Shubin takes Rosanoff to the Embassy where he hands over the despatches. The documents he has handed over demand a reply, but the information is in code and will take twelve hours to decipher. So in the meantime. Rosanoff has a few hours to kill in Paris. Shubin invites Rosanoff to dinner, and afterwards to a performance by Mata Hari.

At the show, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) does a provocative dance in front of a giant statue of Shiva. Apparently this is one of the sequences that was cut. It appears that Garbo’s dance was a little too steamy. At the end of the performance the crowd goes wild. Especially Rosanoff, who after witnessing one performance is completely infatuated with Mata Hari.

But Rosanoff isn’t the only one infatuated with Mata Hari. General Shubin meets her back stage. He wants a relationship (or a least a quick leg-over) with Mata Hari. But she is not interested at this time. She is more enamoured with the other younger men who throw themselves at her. But Shubin knows a few ‘dirty secrets’ about Mata Hari, and threatens to reveal them all. She calls his bluff. Shubin backs down and leaves with his desires un-satiated.

Afterwards, Mata Hari and an entourage of young men make then way to a gambling den called The Pavillion. The Pavillion is actually a front for the German spymaster Andriani (Lewis Stone), and Mata Hari is one of his agents. Mata Hari and Andriani meet in a back room. Her next mission is to find out about the papers that were flown in from Russia earlier in the day. To acquire the information she is sent to seduce Shubin once again. But there may be a another way to get the information. Rosanoff has followed Mata Hari to the casino, and offers to chauffeur her home. She accepts the offer, and the couple return to her abode.

More recent Mata Hari films have asked the question, was Mata Hari really a German Agent? Or was she a French double-agent? Or was she a courtesan who’s allegiances fluctuated with whoever was paying her the most? In this film there is no conflict. She is definitely a spy for the Germans. The conflict in this film comes from her relationship with Rosanoff. It is her love for him that is her eventual undoing.

Early in the film Andriani kills one of his agents. Her name was Carlotta (Karen Morley), and she worked in a very similar fashion to Mata Hari; seducing the information from men of influence. But she falls in love. As Andriani has her killed, he says to Mata Hari, ”A spy in love is a tool that has lost it’s usefulness.” It’s a lesson that Mata Hari should have heeded.

This film makes virtually no attempt to tell the truth about Mata Hari’s life. The only things that are true are: she called herself Mata Hari, she danced, she fell in love with a Russian pilot, and was shot as a traitor. Apart from that, all the characters and situations have been made up.

But if you look at this film as entertainment, and not as a history lesson, then I guess it isn’t to bad. The last twenty minutes or so are a bit long and overly melodramatic, but that was the style at the time. Despite this film’s flaws it is worth noting that much of the myth and notoriety surrounding Mata Hari was created by the success of this motion picture, rather than any factual retelling of the Mata Hari story.

The acting is a film of this era isn’t really worth talking about too much. It was made long before ‘method acting’ so nobody really inhabits their character. In some of the scenes it is almost like watching a bad soap opera. Ramon Navarro is particularly guilty of over-acting. Garbo, on the other hand doesn’t have to act until the end of the film. Generally her lurid costumes do the talking for her.

Time has caught up with this film a bit, but if you are a hard core fan of spy movies, you must see this film (at least once). The Mata Hari legend begins here.

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